President's Column: A Tribute To Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr.

A Tribute To Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. Barry C. Scheck

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Before he became the most famous lawyer on the planet, Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. was already known as a great civil rights lawyer in the tradition of Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Darrow. Whether the case involved police abuse, employment discrimination, or civil liberties, Johnnie was always an advocate who sought reforms as well as money, and used public pressure to get both.

He succeeded not just because he was a superb trial lawyer, or because he was a creative legal thinker, or because he was a savvy media strategist — he was surely blessed with all these talents — but because he never forgot a critical teaching of Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing the ground…. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

His early work in the cases of Leonard Deadwyler and Ron Settles fundamentally changed establishment attitudes about police brutality litigation in Los Angeles, if not the country, and helped end the notoriously dangerous use of “choke holds.”

Deadwyler was shot while racing to get his pregnant wife to a hospital. Settles was a college football star. Police claimed he hung himself in his cell. In fact, he was beaten and choked to death.

After Johnnie became the most famous lawyer on the planet, the very next case he chose to try was an action for the estate of Cynthia Wiggins, a bus rider and mother of two from downtown Buffalo, who was hit by a truck while trying to cross a busy freeway to get to work in a suburban shopping mall: no bridge or shuttle was provided for inner-city workers commuting by public transportation. Johnnie won a money judgement and got the bridge built.

When Abner Louima was viciously attacked by police in a Brooklyn precinct bathroom, Johnnie got a record monetary offer from the city very quickly, but he and his client refused to settle for more than a year,  until reforms were adopted that would help undermine the “blue wall of silence” in police abuse cases.

When four black teenagers going to a basketball tryout were shot by New Jersey State Troopers on the Turnpike for no reason following a racial profiling stop, Johnnie made sure this case, and its political aftermath, finally broke the back of racial profiling in New Jersey. The troopers pled guilty, and there was a record settlement for the teenagers.

Johnnie did not stop there. He took on and miraculously resolved the seemingly intractable decade-old retaliation case brought by 10 black New Jersey State Troopers who had first blown the whistle on racial profiling. Only Johnnie could have closed that deal; the energy, charm, and love that poured out of him salved the wounds of clients and adversaries alike.

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Johnnie became a criminal defense lawyer in 1965 after quitting his first job, in the Los Angeles city attorney’s office, because he could not abide the police perjury he saw at  misdemeanor trials for resisting arrest brought against defendants whom the police had beaten as “an attitude adjustment.” For more than 35 years, Johnnie took on all the tough cases. He once won twelve murder trials in a row. And he never quit on his clients.

He initially lost the case he cared about most: Geronimo Pratt, a Black Panther wrongly convicted of murder in 1972. With the help of Stuart Hanlon and the Centurion Ministries, Johnnie freed Pratt 27 years later and forced a huge settlement based on suppression of exculpatory evi dence.

For those of us who loved Johnnie and were privileged to work with him for many years, this is an enormous and untimely loss. For criminal defense lawyers everywhere, Johnnie will be remembered as a brave and stalwart champion of liberty. He said it best himself:1 

Today some believe that our system of justice needs changing, not defending. While they sit and scan the morning headlines or watch the nightly news, they feel that the emphasis on the criminal in the criminal justice system is entirely misplaced. Criminals are eligible for justice, victims wind up forgotten. Or so they believe. What these individuals fail to acknowledge, perhaps don’t want to believe, is that judges are human, police officers may lie, and innocent people are sometimes charged with crimes.

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I am an advocate because I understand that while you may be able to guarantee that you won’t commit a crime, you can’t guarantee that you won’t be charged with a crime. And if you were charged with a crime, or if your mother, father, sister or brother were charged with a crime, wouldn’t you want every protection afforded you by the Constitution? Or would you feel that you had too many rights? And if you stood wrongly arrested, who’s the victim then?

When I walk into a courtroom, I’m not merely defending the individual who stands accused. I’m defending a legal system that guarantees the presumption of innocence and every individual’s right to equal protection under the law. The only way that you or I can be assured of our right to a fair trial is if every citizen in the land is assured of his/her right to a fair trial. When one of us is denied justice, all of us are denied justice. This is no slippery slope argument, it’s a fundamental and irrefutable truth of life in a democracy. What Thomas Jefferson said more than 200 years ago still applies today: trial by jury is the anchor of all our liberties.

Let us be clear and let us make no mistake about this – while court records will designate a trial as The People v. The Accused, each time that courtroom is brought to order, we are all on trial, every one of us, and we are all the people, and we are all entitled to zealous representation.

I am an advocate. I have had many clients but a single cause. Justice must be served.



1. Journey to Justice, One World/Ballantine (1996); ISBN 0345405838